The Foundations of Narrative Focused Trauma Care

What exactly is Narrative Focused Trauma Care? It’s grounded in the belief that healing is not only possible but also essential to the unfolding gospel story within and around us. This holistic approach integrates psychology and theology to holistically engage the heartbreaking impact of trauma and abuse with compassion and care through story. 

The Allender Center specializes in training people to understand their own stories in order to more deeply enter the lives of those they are called to love and serve. We come alongside to equip and develop skills for wading into the difficult waters of heartache, trauma, and abuse.

The foundations of Narrative Focused Trauma Care are unpacked in Level I training, where you’ll explore your own narratives and those of others, with the ultimate goal of moving towards healing – for yourself, your relationships, and the broader community, paving the way for future generations.

In this episode, Dan and Rachael will lead us through the four intensive weekends of Narrative Focused Trauma Care Level I training, offering insights into what participants can expect and some of the transformative experiences that wait for you.

Dan emphasizes, “We want people to imagine in the small and in whatever ways they are drawn to dream, to begin to move into… better trauma care through story and ultimately the story of Jesus.”

Be sure to catch the first part of this two-part conversation, “The Heart of Narrative Focused Trauma Care,” where we go deeper into the “why” behind Narrative Focused Trauma Care.


Episode Transcript:

Dan: Let’s just say between the two of us, I think you’re amazingly organized and you know I’m not. So when we begin to talk about something where we’re putting words to the organization of something, it’s just probably important to acknowledge between the two of us and whomever may be listening that you bring much more order than I do. True.

Rachael: Well, in what way? I think I’m very organized in where I place things. I’m somewhat organized in how I communicate those things. It feels clear in my brain and organized in my brain, but I think we’re good. I think we both have strengths and weaknesses we bring to organization.

Dan: Okay. Well, just to begin by simply saying, I’m going to lean a lot on you because when we’re talking about Narrative Focused Trauma Care, what we want to do is move into what… the organizational process by which we attempt to accomplish what we talked about in the engagement of the core theological issues, including the reality were made in the image of God, including the fact that as much as we long and were built to be known and to know, we’re also terrified and we are apt to flee, hide and blame when indeed someone moves into our world to invite us into the knowing process. So we put a few words to that last time, but when you think about what’s the structure, what’s the organization behind the process that we are offering to this universe?

Rachael: Yeah. Well, I mean a few things I would say initially, just to help people understand again, what do we mean by Narrative Focused Trauma Care? First of all, it’s the underlying methodology that informs the work we do at the Allender Center, whether that’s Narrative Focused Trauma Care certificate or training or a healing offering that we do like a Story Workshop or a Recovery Week. The methodology, the model, the style if you will, of care and how we’re coming about it is going to be very similar…

Dan: And including a podcast. So whether it is something you as a listener are aware of, we operate in that model pretty well. It’s like our skin. So I’m sorry you were saying.

Rachael: Well, and as we put words too in the podcast prior to this, in some ways the why as you said it so well, I wish I had written it down so I could just reiterate it, but just that sense of the why for us is that kind of integration of a biblical story, the theological frame and in some ways the psychology of our human condition and how they collide and a sociological framework. So that’s all there. You can listen to that to kind of understand the why, but how we go about this work, I think the easiest way to talk about it is probably to talk about our foundational Narrative Focused Trauma Care training. And again, learning any kind of methodology that is actually like a skill you utilize with other human beings takes time and many layers. But for us, a couple of ways that we bring Narrative Focused Trauma Care to life is we do it one, in four intensive weekends. That involves a lot of reading and kind of knowledge building because this is a fusion of multiple disciplines. So we’re really wanting to educate people about trauma and the impact of trauma. We’re wanting to introduce, reduce a robust theological frame, and we’re wanting to help people understand how this collides in story. And there are a lot of modalities that deal with trauma care. Ours happens to be narrative focused. And so one thing I would say is we’re not proposing that this methodology or what we do at the Allender Center is the end all be all, final answer, to healing all trauma. We are partners in a vast network of people. We need all hands on deck. We need everyone at the table, but we are locating trauma care in story. And so we could talk through in some ways what we do in those four intensive weekends to begin to put some legs to Narrative Focused Trauma Care and the how.

Dan: I love that very strong emphasis. We’re not the only pizza place in town. I think we serve some good pizza and it kind of goes between Chicago thick bread to Sicilian thin. So we cover cover a fairly wide gambit. But if you’re looking for, I’m not going to continue the metaphor, but it’s enough to be able to say it’s an invitation that many are inviting you to. And that is how do we live with the goal of sanctification to become Jesus in the midst of a deeply fallen broken world where we do not want to create these polarities that keep you from either entering your body, entering something of your own unique story or the gospel story. So that’s one of the reasons why we begin the very first weekend inviting somebody to write usually a 600 to 800 word story between the ages of 5 and 15 of where they would say, I have known heartache, I have known something of tragedy or trauma. And we don’t paint any more clarity because we know for every human being, there is this panoply of events that you would fit into that category. And it isn’t crucial that you write the worst, the hardest or the least, that you just tell the truth and write the story not as an itinerary, but literally as a form of fiction. Again, I know that scares people, but you’re writing a story as well as you can describing what that 8-year-old, 12-year-old child would’ve experienced in the midst of having lost their favorite pet and then finding out later that the parents literally had the dog taken away. Dog wasn’t lost, parents didn’t want to put up with a dog any further. That may not seem like the most tragic story, but for an 8-year-old who’s reflecting now as a 42-year-old on the nature of what has shaped something of their own way of entering into the world, that story has a profound presence for shaping their way of being in the world. So that first weekend we’re really beginning with this assumption you can take no one any further than you have been willing to go within your own story. And that story is bigger than just you, your family of origin. It includes your neighborhood, it includes in some sense the larger world around you in terms of the eon, the culture, the race, the ethnicity. In other words, everything that has shaped you to be who you are. We’re inviting you into that process.

Rachael: And in doing so, like you’ve said so well before, engaging the beauty and the brokenness of those realities and the impact of trauma and abuse stories, how they fragment, how they bring a lot of isolation, how they bring numbness to our bodies, to our memories and imagination. And so yeah, that first weekend we’re really looking at that interplay of story and trauma. And again, something I just think has to be named where you talk about story. And again, even now in your imagination, you could go, okay, so this is very mental work. It’s imagination work. It’s not like you’re not. And it’s like, no, this is a very holistic work, engaging the body because you can’t enter a trauma narrative without reliving something of the trauma in your body. You can’t hear other people’s stories of harm without experiencing trauma in your body. And so that’s one of the realities or how we teach Narrative Focused Trauma Care and also how we propose is a really key healing ingredient is the work of group work and bringing your stories in group with a guided facilitator who’s getting good supervision. We talk a lot throughout the training how we’re wired for love, we’re made for good attunement, we’re made for honor and delight and care and a capacity to repair when harm has been done. That’s how we’re made. And so in many ways, bringing stories in a group kind of allows for in some ways a reenactment of all the things we’re afraid of, trusting other people, someone missing us, someone misreading us, but also the possibility of all the things we’re made for.

Dan: Oh yeah, trauma happened in relationship. That’s right. Well, healing happens in relationship because as we talked about in our earlier podcast, our God is Trinitarian, our God is a social being. And in that relational context, redemption occurs. So having the opportunity to read your story, and this is a strange phrase, I hope you allow yourself to ponder it. Sometimes the people around us actually know more of the story than we do ourselves. Even if they don’t know us or never heard the story before, they don’t have the bias, they don’t have the long history of shutting something down that’s too difficult to actually name even when we name it. And therefore, the others in the group have a chance to read and engage not just our story, but our body as were indeed close to the trauma that even may have occurred 30, 40, 50 years ago. So it is such an important interplay between the written story and the engagement in a group with a good facilitator inviting you further into the story and into the parts of the story that you don’t want to know,

Rachael: And a movement that’s happening in good Narrative Focused Trauma Care is a capacity to get to be more embodied as you bring your story and to have a softening or a tenderizing of places where we actually feel in some ways exposed and therefore feel a lot of shame, a lot of contempt toward ourselves or toward others. So there’s a movement toward grief, toward a deeper naming that actually disarms in a way that leads to more tenderness, more capacity to grieve the harm that’s been done, both the harm has happened to us, and then the ways in which we’ve either joined the harm against ourselves or harmed other people in a similar or different way. There’s also a movement toward righteous anger in some ways, justice, right? There’s a movement towards comfort and there’s a movement towards a waking up that this is not what you were meant for and how that plays out on a larger scale of our systems and the brokenness in our systems, the brokenness in our communities, the brokenness in our families that we’re not meant for, which leads to a lot of work of our second intensive weekend, which is around our context and how our identity is formed, how our style of relating is shaped in this world, which is not… you know we come from a culture right now that tells us if you just take enough personality tests, you’ll understand who you are and then you can mitigate your behaviors. Again, none of that’s bad. Insight and awareness can be really helpful, but if again, that’s decontextualized and it’s who I am, and there’s not a deeper seeking of like, well, how did you come to be who you are? So we spend a lot of time looking at our families of origin and those primary attachment structures, where were some of the initial wounds that are thematic, that have language, associate words spoken to us, physical presence that’s either violating or violent or absent or good enough, but our parents and our primary caregivers are still sinners, and how is our cultural context also informing what capacity our primary caregivers have to love us, how we’re making sense of ourself in the world, because we know, especially in the realm of abuse, so often the groundwork and because as we talked in our last podcast about the sense that we have an enemy who is the evil one, the kingdom of evil, the groundwork for how we are set up for harm, set up for abuse, set up to need things that sometimes are read very well by people with bad intentions, start in those earliest moments. And the more we can understand how we’ve come to relate to the world around us. So for an example I could give is like I used to refer to myself as just a recovering codependent because I had a lot of codependent behavior and I remember a very good story reader invited me… The basic sentence was, yeah, that is true to you, but that’s not just who you are. It’s not like you’re just a codependent person and your life’s work is just to overcome it. How did you come to believe that rescuing and being helpful to the annihilation of yourself and also at the exploitation of others in the realm of pity, it’s like your own addiction that didn’t happen in a vacuum. Nope. How did this come to be? And that was very powerful, liberating work for me. The awareness of those stories didn’t lead to immediate healing, but it certainly gave me more choice to begin to understand what needed to be excavated, what had been buried under rubble.

Dan: Well, you hit the proverbial nail right on the head, and that is all forms of harm do not occur in a vacuum. And oftentimes we are very reluctant to look at the larger context. And that is not only our family of origin, it’s the marriage of our mother and father because it isn’t just this thing called a family, it begins with what’s happening. If you have a mother and a father, what’s happening in their relationship that’s beautiful is going to be part of the blessing that you inherit and where it’s broken even more so, you’re going to have something of the fragmentation, something of the numbing and the isolation that’s part of trauma. So what we sometimes get blamed for doing is just you’re just blaming parents. And it’s like, I have three adult children. I’m not out to castigate parents. I simply know that the reality of sin, lust and anger, adultery and murder played out with all my children and inevitably with all my grandchildren and inevitably, inevitably with anybody who I’m in relationship with. So the reality that we’re inviting people to is can we look at systems? Can we look at structures and actually institutions that wittingly or unwittingly create the what we’ll call the water we live in? And in that we have to do better than what a fish does. And that is obviously a fish doesn’t really acknowledge with a kind of consciousness, the water that it lives in. We need to be able to say, what was the family? What were my mother and father? Where was I in the context of other siblings? What was the role? What was my “implicit or explicit” responsibilities that shaped something of how I enter the world? That is hard work because most of us are loyal in a way that blinds us to naming what’s true. And so that weekend as we look at your story and then the larger context opens up realities about the nature of how evil, and again, not saying parents are evil, but how evil has used the brokenness of our families to deeply convince us of lies, of vows, and really eventually of a kind of idolatrous soul tie to others that keeps us from having a freedom to truly love. Because the goal of this weekend is to invite people to love

Rachael: The goal of the whole work, right? The whole healing.

Dan: A quick little, oh, I forgive you, but a movement of understanding not only your own harm, but the harm others have endured in a way that doesn’t pretend that it’s all the same, but nonetheless is able to go in with so much more generosity. Now take us to the third weekend.

Rachael: Well, before I go there, just something I want to say is this reminds me so much. A big part of Narrative Focused Trauma Care is really finding our response to Jesus’ question that he asks a couple of different people in the gospels, do you want to be well? Do you want to be healed? And because many of us come from a very Western framework, we hear that question in a very individualistic way. Do I want to be healed unto what? And what you just put words to is to want to be healed, to want to be well in our yes is not just a yes for ourselves, but it is meant to be a yes for our families, the generations that have come before us, and we’ll come after us and for our communities and for our culture and our politics, and in some ways, again, living out more fully who we’re called and meant to be as the children of God. And so all of the movement of Narrative Focused Trauma Care is pointing us there. That’s like the telos if you will. That’s like the end. And we know that actually getting well and we see that in the gospel stories is very disruptive because health and wellness in the truest sense, like the biblical sense, wholeness, is very disruptive to systems of supremacy and exploitation and systems that depend on your numbness so that you aren’t paying attention so that you don’t care, that you don’t ask for more flourishing, more life for everyone, more equity. So the vows and what war is against us and what comes against us, it can feel like, oh yeah, it’s just, again, it’s just my personality. It’s just who I am. But we actually believe, no, it’s also ways that are keeping us incredibly bound and incapable of imagining the world that we’re meant to be believing and pulling into the now. And I love how you said that Dan, we’re meant to be liberated to love more fully and love in that way that shakes the earth, right? That shakes the foundations. And so there is a lot of hard work that goes into that part of the training. And then we go a little bit deeper because at least in our work, especially with abuse, you can’t do Narrative Focused Trauma Care without understanding and acknowledging that our sexual development has come under profound assault by the enemy, especially through abuse and harm. And that it is so deeply tied to our capacity for hope and imagination that requires a deep sense of desire for more. And it requires our bodies to be captivated by beauty. And so we take a look at what is some of the impact of harm and abuse that is coming against our sexuality? What is God’s intent for our sexuality? What does it mean to be humans who are made for pleasure and arousal? And that being called good, but also that playing out in a world that is really unsafe and brings a lot of violation in many ways, it’s one, it’s weird to say, this is going to sound like a little psychotic. It’s one of my favorite weekends. I think it’s some of the holiest work we do at the Allender Center. And certainly this is a place you have, feels like a rich inheritance from the faithfulness of your life’s work to really take a stand against what comes against the human heart. And so…

Dan: Well, again, we’re dealing with sexuality, which in some sense people immediately assume has to do with gender and genitally. And it does, but it also has to do with what you put words to. And that is arousal in the presence of goodness, beauty, joy. And we talk about the interplay of that which is erotic, which unfortunately the word erotic has become a synonym for sexually entangling, either images or language, et cetera, where C.S. Lewis and others would talk about it as that vital life force that finds the deepest sense of delight in Rachmaninoff or in watching people play out on a sport called football, blah, blah, blah. The point is, we are meant to be aroused by life, by beauty, by complexity, and it arouses us with delight and honor. It arouses us with a desire for union. So when we’re talking about sexuality, the development of sexuality, it isn’t just the development of your genital experience, though included. It’s an invitation to know evil wants to ruin our taste of sensual arousal in the presence of union through beauty. And if that’s the case, then yeah, we’re dealing with a category of sexual abuse in this weekend. And I would say there are three categories for people, people who come in knowing that they have been sexually abused. A second group, people who would say they weren’t abused, who come to name their experience as sexually abusive. And then a third group, which I’m grateful for, and that is they were never sexually abused. All three groups have to engage. The fact is: evil is relentless, it is pernicious, and it hates our sexuality in a way in which ain’t nobody, no one free to be able to say there was no harm. So bullying oftentimes involves language of humiliation, of gender, of sexuality, the experience of at least in my day of being in seventh, eighth grade, being forced to take showers with other boys. So much harm in the context of that. So we begin to, shall we say, broaden and deepen the sense of how evil has been working against your capacity for arousal, pleasure, honor, delight, union. It becomes a universal category that every single person has to face where they’ve been harmed, and often in that context where they have done harm. And there is so much shame. I mean the realm of shame, it’s there in the first weekend. It’s certainly there in the second. But even in our brains, the portion of our brain that particularly holds our sexual arousal also holds a vast majority of our sense of shame. So our bodies have to engage this, and it’s really hard for people to hear, even though they know theologically or biblically how true it is. Our bodies, even as broken as they are, are the temple of God and the Spirit of God resides within us. And then again, not trying to make this simple and easily engaged, but to be able to hold the beginning of Romans 8 and the end of Romans 8. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, even knowing that there will be sexual struggles a week from now, a year from now, and there is nothing that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. When we hold that the gospel in some sense demands we enter shame with a kind of defiance, but also humility to receive what it is that Jesus offers. It’s a really freeing weekend. I agree with you. There’s probably more tears and more laughter in that weekend than almost any work other than when we do a Recovery Week for Men or for Women. It’s really a thrilling, thrilling life giving work.

Rachael: And so much of the work in small group and story engagement is through the language of lament, a restoration of honor, a disarming or a lessening of shame so that there is a greater sense of blessing, blessing of bodies, blessing of arousal, blessing of desire for connection and awakening to beauty. And in some ways a restoration of dreaming. Which brings us to, in many ways the threshold, not the culmination, but the threshold moment of the fourth and final weekend of our Narrative Focused Trauma Care level one training, which has to do with reconnecting our sense of calling and purpose to the particularities of our story and the restorative redemptive work God is doing in our own lives as a way to have more clarity as to how we’re meant to be and who we’re meant to be, especially with regard to not only dreaming but like doing and living out those dreams in the here and now. And we use Micah 6:8 as a core frame for in some ways what is the restorative movement of Narrative Focused Trauma Care is a greater capacity to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly, but with a kind of clarity and particularity about the unique ways in which we do that.

Dan: Well, I just love the phrase of a restoration of dreaming. And again, the way you put it, it’s just not dreaming. It’s doing, which is what true dreaming is, versus fantasy being caught up in the illusions of grandeur or of activities. I think so many people end up literally, but more metaphorically sitting on the couch watching other people live a life that bears drama, that bears death, resurrection and ascension. We are meant for entering grief and humiliation, death. We are meant to see rescue, resurrection, and we’re meant to be empowered to be able to live out something of what we were uniquely written by God to bring to this earth that is the power of the ascension being given a kingdom. So when you talk about the fourth weekend is really an invitation to take all the work you have done into the imagination, not fantasy, into the imagination of you were meant to say hell no to a lot to something. And you were meant to say, heaven, yes, you were meant to put your foot on the neck of evil, and yet you were also meant to bring beauty and goodness and truth to this earth. How are you written by God, empowered by God to bring life and life more abundant in your interplay with friends, family, your own body and your world and culture. So I really do think it’s so exciting to invite people to dream and to begin that slow risky step-by-step process to make, and this will sound bizarre, make really far better chocolate chip cookies or tend to the garden that is in your side yard with even more sense of meaning and flourishing. And again, I think so often we think of calling as this big, big, big when no, it’s like you make decent chocolate chip cookies, but nobody’s going to be able to go, this is a taste of heaven. Well, what would it mean to make the kind of chocolate chip cookies to tend to your garden, to invite people to the banquet of your presence and the food you offer that does bring people into a taste of the goodness of God in the land of the living. And that’s what we want. We want people to imagine in the small and in whatever ways they are drawn to dream, to begin to move into a strange a phrase as this is to better trauma care through story and ultimately the story of Jesus.

Rachael: And just to recap, not to add on to that beautiful summary of what it is we’re doing, but we’re talking you through the movements of our Narrative Focused Trauma Care Level One training. And we have other levels that build on this that get more into the mechanics of how we’re running groups and how to lead a group and how to connect group work to story work. We have lots of resources we provide in all of our trainings, readings and listenings and watchings, and we have other things we have people do besides write stories. But ultimately, yeah, everything you just said toward the end of connecting our story with God’s story for the sake of the world and to take a firm stand that though trauma is real, and though trauma does have profound impact, it does not ever have the final say and who we are and who we’re called to be.

Dan: Yes. And we don’t actually believe there’s something called healing that just erases the scars of the past harm. But we also believe that those scars tell a good story and that us to be able to bring as Paul does in 2 Corinthians 4:10, where he says, I live every day in my body, the death of Jesus, so that I might also live in my body, the life of Jesus. So we’re really hoping that people will grow in their capacity to enter sorrow and grief and anger, but also play and joy and wonder, and that makes for a fairly strange human being. And yet that’s what we would like to become. I think you’re a stranger than me, but nonetheless,

Rachael: I’m sure. I’m so sure about that. No.

Dan: Yeah, you’re confirming it. But we want people to live in one sense in the complexity of the calling of engaging, broken and beautiful, but also the power of redemption in the already and not yet. And if we can invite that, then we really think there will be a greater capacity to enter ambivalence, ambiguity, uncertainty without having to whitewash or to, in one sense, create these polarities that polarize and end up creating endless new trauma versus something of the taste of what you said so well, Micah 6:8, we want people to have a heart for righteousness, but for mercy and for humility. And in one sense, here’s the dilemma, and we’re not going to go much further given what we’ve already done, but what we’re inviting others to, we long for ourselves.

Rachael: Yeah, absolutely.

Dan: And part of the privilege of doing this work is that by no means have I arrived. And I would say for us, we are so desirous of being more mature, and yet it’s somehow the privilege of engaging these stories together where we end up, those who lead, teach, who are in the groups, we end up becoming along with you more caught up in the gospel.